Sunday, January 1, 2012

NCLB: The Worst Education Legislation Ever Passed: Thoughts on "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" by Diane Ravitch, Part 1

When I was a student at Mark Twain Elementary School in Webb City, Missouri, our principal roamed the halls with a paddle stuck up his suit sleeve. When he spied a wayward child, perhaps someone talking in the lunch line or out of line, the principal  grabbed the unruly student's arm and whipped out the paddle, and in one continuous action applied that specific board of education to the student's backside.

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, public education has been whipped and beaten down with the long arm of the education law much as students in my elementary school felt the stick of a wooden paddle during the 1960's.

Sometimes I get whiplash from the plethora of education fads, programs, and reforms I've observed and experienced during my career. There aren't many teachers who entered the profession prior to 1983, the year the groundbreaking report A Nation at Risk ushered in the standards movement. I started teaching in 1981.

Reading Diane Ravitch's insightful, clear history of education reform The Death and Life of the Great American School System offered catharsis and validation for the positions I've articulated about No Child Left Behind and the data-driven, test-prep trajectory of education in the past ten years.



Ravitch reminds readers that the "federal government is prohibited by law from imposing any curriculum on states or school districts" (Location 300). Yet states (read: the public) has tolerated the federal incursion into states' rights via NCLB. Ravitch writes that NCLB is the worst piece of education legislation ever passed, a point on which I agree. In time we might realize that NCLB's most harmful effect emanates from its diminishment of federalism.

Like many teachers, the election of Barack Obama gave me hope for the death of NCLB. Sadly, from President Obama students and teachers got Arne Duncan instead of Linda Darling-Hamond. Duncan gave us the ill-conceived and immensely harmful Race to the Top, suggesting that there should be winners and losers in the education lottery. Obama's and Duncan's education philosophies march lock-step with the corporate reform movement that Ravitch describes:

"The new corporate reformers betray their weak comprehension of education by drawing false analogies between education and business. They think they can fix education by applying the principles of business, organization, management, law, and marketing and by developing a good data-collection system that provides the information necessary to incentivize the workforce--principals, teachers, and students--with appropriate rewards and sanctions" (Location 371).

The corporate mentality grounds itself in competition with winners and losers. Ironically, corporate reformers frequently reference Finland's education system as a model. They fail to recognize that the Finnish system is based on equity for all students. The corporate model seeks to destroy neighborhoods by closing "failing" schools. Schools ground communities, serve as meeting places for neighborhoods, and promote democracy among citizens, a theme Ravitch repeats throughout the book. Thus, closing schools translates into diminishing our democracy.

The standards movement that began with A Nation at Risk morphed into the accountability movement with the passage of NCLB: "What once was the standards movement was replaced by the accountability movement. What once was an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy: Measure, then punish or reward" (Location 437).

Standards offer educators an opportunity to develop a curriculum-rich program of learning, unlike test-based accountability that has evolved into a numbers game states and schools play at the detriment to student learning. "NCLB was all sicks and no carrots. Test-based accountability--not standards--became our national education policy. There was no underlying vision of what education should be or how one might improve schools" (Location 529).

As Ravitch writes, "No Child Left Behind had no vision other than improving test scores in reading and math. It produced mountains of data, not educated citizens. Its advocates then treated that data as evidence of its 'success.' It ignored the importance of knowledge. It promoted a cramped, mechanistic, profoundly anti-intellectual definition of education. In the age of NCLB, knowledge was irrelevant" (Location 687).

Side Note: Since we're still in the NCLB age, I wish Ravitch had used the present tense rather than the past tense.

Ravitch offers ample evidence of NCLB's harmful impact on the New York City school system that relinquished control of its system to mayoral control and on the San Diego school district that "emphasized 'how teachers should be teaching at the expense of conveying what students should be learning'" (Location 1237). Both districts adopted Balanced Literacy pedagogy that filled students' heads with educational jargon such as "I can make a text-to-text connection!" (Location 1296).

Gaming the NCLB system has become a favorite pastime among states and districts. To increase graduation rates, schools often use what Ravitch characterizes as "a dubious practice called 'credit recovery,' a covert form of social promotion for high school students" (Location 1721). Ravitch offers a description of CR: "Under credit recovery, students who failed a course or never even showed up for it could get credit by turning in an independent project, whose preparation was unmonitored, or by attending a few extra sessions."

Credit Recovery has many incarnations, but regardless of its form, it undermines attendance policies, teachers' efforts to set high academic standards for students, and the value of other students' diplomas. We have CR in my school. I'll comment more on its impact on the learning program in a future post.

Another, more egregious why states game the system occurs from rewriting the state tests. Ravitch names five states that have not engaged in this practice: Missouri, Maine, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Wyoming. She compares student outcomes on various state tests to the NAEP. Rather than test prep, which teachers are encouraged and mandated to do, students need to "expand their vocabulary and improve their reading skills when they learn history, science, and literature, just as they may sharpen their mathematics skills while learning science and geography" (Location 2058).

Test-taking skills developed to pass one test, the NCLB mandated state assessment, mean students know how to take a single test but not necessarily know the subject content. Nor can they pass a comparable test based on the same subject when the format changes. "They master test-taking methods, but not the subject itself. In the new world of accountability, students' acquisition of the skills and knowledge they need for further education and for the workplace is secondary" (Location 2911, 2932).

Not only does the accountability movement with its emphasis on states' high stakes testing diminish student learning, it also creates a false notion among the public about the criteria on which we judge successful and failing schools and teachers.

NCLB is a stick used to beat students, educators, and stakeholders. Ironically, schools no longer tolerate corporal punishment in schools, but the federal government continues to flog public education with the NCLB paddle. More about the beating educators have taken under NCLB in Part 2.

1 comment:

  1. Most of the time I try to stay out of the debates regarding US educational policy, but your post brings to light the similarities between where we're going in education in Ontario, Canada and where you're heading in the US. Credit recovery has been here for a fairly long time now, a result of the push from our ministry to see 90% of students graduate from high school. Thus, while politicians can claim success in their efforts to 'educate' a province, academic standards are the casualty.
    I need to read Ravitch's book. Thanks for this important post, Glenda.

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